True Heroes: Biblical and Theological Motivations for Family Discipleship

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A Hero Complex

Timothy Paul Jones once wrote, “What you do for God beyond your home will typically never be greater than what you practice with God within your home” (all quotations in this article are taken from Trained in the Fear of God). 

Some of the most memorable stories we hear in worship services and Christian conferences are of those heralded missionaries who risked all for the sake of Christ. Who isn’t moved by the heart-wrenching sacrifice of Adoniram and Ann Judson? Who wouldn’t be motivated by the unashamed commitment to Christ of John and Betty Stam? Christian missionaries and leaders who have given and even lost their lives for the sake of the gospel are rightly heralded as heroes of the faith.

While it is right and good to honor men and women in church history who have taken big risks for Christ, with this honor comes an unfortunate tendency to look down on Christians who live unassuming and relatively ordinary lives. We teach little boys to be like Moses and David, as we talk about bushes burning and giants falling. The problem with this is that when we look at our own lives, which probably look little like David, Moses, Adoniram Judson, or John Stam, we begin to slowly crumble under the weight of our own mediocrity.

It would be hard to number the amount of households that are filled with prayers over children like, “Lord, make our son into a great man of God who will do great things for you.” The problem with this prayer is not the desire or the expression. The problem is the perception of what a “great man of God” is. The problem in many Christian households is ordinary, consistent, faithful obedience to the Word is viewed as second-rate. Dads who lead their families in nightly worship or devotion are not viewed as heroes. Moms who read the Bible to their children before bed are not seen as heroines of the faith.

While the heroic tales of missionaries are deeply moving, the primary way God expands his kingdom and the realm of his presence is through ordinary discipleship in families. Moms and Dads who commit to make disciples in their own home are taking part in the fulfillment of the role of dominion given to Adam and perfectly fulfilled in Christ.

The misconception and erroneous perception of greatness is the root of much discipleship deficiency in Christian homes. When greatness is measured only in terms of rare, special ministries and testimonies, the ordinary elements of Christian family discipleship are overlooked. Within my own household, these tendencies to overlook ordinary obedience to disciple my wife in the gospel prevents meaningful and significant discipleship from ever taking place. There are many reasons for breaking this trend and implementing a disciplined routine of discipleship in the home.

Biblical Basis for Consistency

One of the reasons a disciplined routine of family discipleship should be implemented in the home is the overwhelmingly biblical evidence, which places the responsibility for the spiritual development of children in the hands of the parents. Contrary to popular opinion, the role of parents isn’t to drop their children off in the church’s ministries solely depend on the church’s pastors to lead their children in the gospel. Jones puts it this way, “Scripturally speaking, the primary responsibility for the spiritual formation of children does rest squarely in the hands of parents.”

As God called a people to himself, he prepared fathers to lead and teach their children. Jim Hamilton observes that when God led his people into the Promised Land and prepared them to live life in it, he called them to extend the glory of God to all nations. This grand purpose was to be carried out through instruction. Hamilton claims, “Moses made clear in Deuteronomy—particularly in Deuteronomy 6:4-9—that fathers of households were responsible to see that this happens.” The ordinary disciplined discipleship in Israelite homes was the means for magnifying the glory of God in all nations. The blessing of the nation depended on the individual actions of fathers to disciple their families. In the words of Hamilton, “It doesn’t take a village; it takes a father.”

Fathers were commanded to repeat the commands of God to their children. They were to teach them to their children continuously. Disciplined family discipleship is expressed most clearly in the Shema. Family discipleship is disciplined and word-centered. The great command of Deuteronomy 6:5 is to be taught “diligently to your children, and [you] shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7).

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In reflecting on my own family discipleship practices, daily Scripture reading and prayer with my wife is the most biblical way to lead my family in the gospel. It is through the teaching of the Word in families that disciples are made and multiplied in the nations. By reading through books of the Bible, my family is able to reflect the heart of the biblical witness on discipleship practices. The design for the family is for fathers to lead their families in disciplined instruction of the Lord. My family’s current practices are lacking in consistency. I need to grasp the comprehensive vision for family discipleship of Deuteronomy 6. Faithfulness to the Word in family discipleship is only beneficial when it is accentuated by a disciplined framework. God uses many means in the discipleship of your children, but Mom and Dad, he primarily uses you!

Theological Motivation for Order

There are also significant theological motivations for disciplined family discipleship. While many theological doctrines help guide our steps in family ministry, the doctrine of the Trinity is specifically practical and applicable to our family relationships and how discipleship should flow in the home. Bruce Ware writes,

“[T]he Trinity helps us to understand how the persons of the Godhead—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—relate to one another and so work in this world as well as how the triune God has designed many relationships among us humans to take place.”

All relationships flow out of the Godhead. We are capable of complex and vibrant relationships because there has eternally existed within the Godhead a gloriously loving relationship. The best way to see how relationships work in all spheres of life, especially within the family, is to reflect on the nature of the Trinity.

After showing how the imago Dei defines how we should treat others, Ware moves to discuss the significance of the Trinity in how it impacts and defines family relationships. He writes in a complete explanation of family relationships,

“The husband and father has, under God, the highest place of authority in the household. His wife submits to him, and his children obey both him and his wife. The wife is under the authority of her husband, but is over the children in the household, partnering with their father to ensure that they learn godliness and obedience. The children are under the authority of both of their parents, understanding that they are to learn from their father and mother what is most important in life, all the while obeying their parents with joy and gladness.”

The Trinity defines our relationships in the family. Husbands are to lead their wives. Wives are to submit to their husbands. Fathers and mothers are to lead their children. Children are to obey their parents. While each of these roles find equal value as being held by people equally created in God’s image, these roles are distinct in nature. As Ware goes on to say, “Both the equality and the distinctiveness that we see in the Trinity should be reflected in household relationships.” So, family discipleship works best when fathers lead out. This is not to say mothers cannot lead their children in the ways of the Lord. It is good that they do this. But the design for the family is for husbands and fathers to exhibit headship.

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In my own home, it is tempting for me to relinquish the responsibility to lead my family. It is much easier to come home from a full day of ministry and watch a ball game. But the Trinity has defined and ordered our relationships in such a way that does not permit me to sit on the sidelines. Fathers and husbands cannot sit on their hands and expect their families to grow in the gospel.

True Heroes Wear Pajamas

While we rightly herald missionaries and biblical men and women as monumental heroes of the faith, the Bible itself suggests that the true heroes are moms and dads who consistently lead their children in the gospel. Christ has come to reorder our relationships in such a way that we can effectively train our children in the fear of the Lord. The picture of a heroine in my home is the young wife and mother who reads and prays over our eight month-old baby boy before bed. True heroes wear pajamas. Be the hero your children need everyday. Call them to the table or the bedroom. Open the Word. Help their little minds and hearts soar.


Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.

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